May 29, 1790 – Rhode Island Joins the Union as the 13th State

Indigenous people occupied most of the area now known as Rhode Island before Europeans arrived, including the Wampanoag, Narragansett, and Niantic tribes. Italian navigator Giovanni Verrazano, sailing to Rhode Island in 1524, found Block Island and described it as “about the bigness of the (Greek) Island of Rhodes.” Roger Williams and other early settlers thought that Verrazano was referring to Aquidneck Island and changed that island’s native name to Rhode Island. In this way, Verrazano inadvertently gave the state part of its official name.

Roger Williams founded the first permanent white settlement in Rhode Island at Providence in 1636 on land purchased from the Narragansett Indians. Forced to flee Massachusetts because of persecution, Williams established a policy of religious and political freedom in his new settlement. Other leaders advocating freedom of worship soon established similar communities on either side of Narragansett Bay. These communities united, and in 1663 King Charles II of England granted them a royal charter, providing for a greater degree of self-government than any other colony in the New World and authorizing the continuation of freedom of religion.

Roger Williams

On May 4, 1776, Rhode Island became the first colony to renounce allegiance to Great Britain’s King George III and declare independence by the Act of Renunciation. Within weeks after the passage of the Act, the Assembly ratified the Declaration of Independence on July 18, 1776.

Nevertheless, Rhode Island was the last of the original 13 states to ratify the United States Constitution, demanding that the Bill of Rights, which guarantees individual liberties, be added. It ratified only after being threatened with having its exports taxed as a foreign nation. But rural resistance to the Constitution remained strong, and in 1788, civil war in Rhode Island over the issue was only narrowly averted.

In 1652, Rhode Island passed the first abolition law in the thirteen colonies, banning African slavery, but the law was not enforced. Rhode Island was the only New England colony to use slaves for both labor and trade; as historian Douglas Harper reports, Newport and Bristol were the major slave markets in the American colonies:

Between 1709 and 1807, Rhode Island merchants sponsored at least 934 slaving voyages to the coast of Africa and carried an estimated 106,544 slaves to the New World. From 1732-64, Rhode Islanders sent annually 18 ships, bearing 1,800 hogsheads of rum, to Africa to trade for slaves, earning £40,000 annually. Newport, the colony’s leading slave port, took an estimated 59,070 slaves to America before the Revolution. In the years after the Revolution, Rhode Island merchants controlled between 60 and 90 percent of the American trade in African slaves.”

By 1774, the slave population of Rhode Island was 6.3%, nearly twice as high as any other New England colony. Both the state and the federal government passed laws against the Atlantic slave trade, but Rhode Island merchants blatantly disregarded them.

As C. M. Clark-Pujara reports in “Slavery, emancipation and Black freedom in Rhode Island, 1652-1842.” PhD Thesis, University of Iowa, 2009:

Not only were Rhode Islanders dominating the pre-revolutionary trade in slaves, they sold a third of their human cargo to their neighbors. The slave trade and its by-products were absolutely essential to the economic welfare of Rhode Island.”

Most notable in this business was the Brown family of Providence. At least six of them ran one of the biggest slave-trading businesses in New England, and for more than half a century the family reaped huge profits from the slave trade. Their donations to Rhode Island College were so generous that the name was changed to Brown University.

View of the future Brown University College Edifice, [Providence, 1792]

In February of 1784, the Rhode Island Legislature passed a measure for gradual emancipation of slaves within Rhode Island. By the mid-19th century, many Rhode Islanders were active in the abolitionist movement, particularly Quakers, who, aberrantly enough, valued morality over greed. By 1840, the census reported only five African Americans enslaved in Rhode Island.

But the legacy of slavery and the racial ideologies that supported it had a long-term impact in the state. Not only did racism remain strong, but blacks who left slavery had few if any resources. In addition, as the free black population grew, racist laws were passed ensuring that blacks would not have the same opportunities as whites.

Today, according to The Economic Progress Institute, only 6.5% of the population of Rhode Island is black, and the state is plagued by problems of racial inequality in education, income, employment and rate of incarceration.

Rhode Island has no county government. It is divided into 39 municipalities each having its own form of local government. The primary political subdivisions of Rhode Island are its cities and towns, which perform functions commonly done by counties in other states.

Rhode Island may be small, but it is known for quite a few “iconic” food items. For example, “coffee milk” – made the official state drink in 1993 – consists of coffee-and-sugar syrup spun with frosty milk for an ice cream-free riff on a milkshake. Then there is the similar sounding “Coffee Cabinet,” for which one boils coffee into a syrup, and combines it with ice cream and milk. What to have with these coffee drinks? Perhaps some Irish brown bread or “doughboys” – holeless doughnuts. But wait for dessert until after you have clams – a Rhode Island staple whether baked, fried, or served in chowder.


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